While a lot of resources have gone into producing and pushing information to farmers and rural people, there has not been enough effort into understanding the uptake and utilization of all this information. Barriers and enabling factors to knowledge uptake have not been dealt with. With dwindling resources, the modernisation-driven communication model of pushing information to people with the hope that they will use it has to be acutely interrogated.
An important part of understanding the demand and use of information is scrutinizing how communication media like field days, agricultural shows, demonstration plots, newspapers, radio, television as well as all brands of social media are rich enough to be able to adequately reproduce information into knowledge. Rather than continue pushing information, it is important to think about helping farmers, communities and policy makers cope with communication challenges, such as unclear or confusing messages and conflicting interpretations.
How effective are field days, agriculture shows and conventional media in sharing knowledge?
Most agricultural events such as field days, shows and workshops are based on the flawed notion of how knowledge is absorbed and applied. Many field days are stage-managed, for instance, in terms of what farmers should say about particular seed varieties and who is supposed to deliver a prepared speech. There is no clear mechanism for transferring knowledge and skills after such events. How much can one learn in a one day event? To what extent do organisers of a field day or an agricultural show take into account people’s different socio-economic backgrounds which tend to influence how they acquire and absorb knowledge? What are the mechanisms for transferring knowledge after an agricultural show or field day? What resources are available for that purpose?
Such events tend to be one-size-fits-all. Every community has different classes of farmers. Peers learn better within their own confines with in line with available resources. What is the point of a field day which does not consider resources and capacity of those who come to learn? In a formal school, pupils are arranged according to grades and knowledge is provided accordingly. A field day assumes every participant is in the same grade. Yet for a farmer without resources, a field day may be meaningless.
It is important to categorize farmers according to parameters like: age, gender, social status, sources of income, wealth status, widows, child-headed households, etc..,. Farmers in the same age group or same wealth ranking should compete in that group. Communities of Practice (CoPs) can then be develop based on shared learning. Those in the same social status should compete in ways that enable them to share knowledge productively. District and national shows should also take that route. In the current arrangement, a farmer who really needs to learn has no room to participate in the show. If the show is about those who have succeeded, what about those who do not do well at their local level due to various reasons? To the extent that they are used to ‘jump-start’ farmers to be like be like ‘successful farmers’, most African field days and agricultural shows reinforce inferiority complex.
Acronyms and buzzwords
Development partners are coming up with acronyms and buzzwords which suggest that they have already resolved a challenge. To what extent can acronyms and buzzwords be assessed against meanings of words used and project objectives? Although development actors use words like ‘sustainable’ in their vocabulary, the absence of other actors like private players and markets during project planning and implementation leads to unsustainable models. Actors who would make projects sustainable are usually invited as part of an exit strategy yet they could have been part of the solution during implementation. In addition, terms like ‘beneficiaries’ suggests that project participants are just receiving benefits passively yet they also contribute their knowledge.
Community capacity to monitor and evaluate interventions
There is need introduce monitoring and evaluation tools through which local people can monitor and identify a project’s shortfalls. Some interventions distort market operations. For instance, communities should be able to determine to what extent free inputs destroy local agro-dealers? An evaluation which does not look at the whole local socio-economic ecosystem tends to overstate the benefits of a single intervention. Communities should be able to monitor and assess their own progress. They can be able to tell the extent to which an intervention is contributing to community life.
Each community should have a knowledge platform where lessons from each intervention are shared and compared with other interventions. It is important to rethink the role of community actors in the modern age from being passive recipients of information and support to knowledge brokers alert to the highly dynamic permutations of ideas and information. They should be able to preserve and re-assemble fleeting connections, so that their knowledge content remains significant for development. The notion that development budgets can best be defended in terms of their immediate ‘results’, rather than through longer-term sustainable efforts need urgent re-visiting. Shared understanding, between organisations providing resources and communities applying those resources in order to change lives, is essential if development interventions are to solve real problems. Successful communication of meaning is a catalyst for this achievement.
Finding the right balance
How people engage with information varies substantially according to culture, education, cultural habits and many other factors. Communication mode and cognitive style play a role in media preference and selection. If you are going to use newspapers, radio or television, how many farmers are going to be reached and how do you determine their satisfaction levels? Most formal media use foreign languages like English, French, Portuguese and Spanish while farmers and rural communities speak in their own language when interviewed.
In spite of the hype, developing efficient platforms to share knowledge through social media and mobile phones is still to produce satisfactory results in many developing countries. One of the challenges is lack of proper business models around social media. Rather than be content with providing the information conduit, mobile service providers want to become sources of news or information. Policy makers have to act on this if agricultural knowledge is to be a powerful development resource. While online discussions such as WhatsApp enable groups to emerge from bottom-up interest, their disadvantage is the difficulty in ensuring the right questions are asked in the first place, and then in making sure those questions are answered by someone with valid lessons and experience. Many of the online discussions are an exchange of opinions among random groups, rather than an effective trawl for experience. There is more gossip than knowledge exchange. Finding the right balance of knowledge sharing methods is becoming a crucial skill.
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